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GUEST COLUMN Casting matters
by Bear Bellinger

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I want you to think back for me …

Think back to first time you felt yourself reflected in pop culture …

Remember that joy ...

Remember that feeling of being seen …

Remember the freedom it embodied …

Hold on to that feeling for me.

I am asked, constantly, "why do you care so much about casting? Is your demand for a diverse stage just born out of a selfish desire for more roles? Aren't we all just acting?"

My answer: Yes. Yes, it is, partially, selfish. We are all just acting. There is an inherent inauthenticity to our profession. We are a funhouse mirror rather than a high-definition picture. A stage that does not reflect the diversity of our city, is, in some ways, a truer reflection of the strife of our times.

When I demand more roles for people who look like me, or behave like me, I am asking to place a superficial bandage on the inequalities present in our daily lives. I wonder: What does equity on stage truly mean in the face of a reemerging White nationalist movement other than a selfish desire to do what I love?

But then I see a picture of a beautiful little Black girl standing in front of a portrait of Michelle Obama. I see her self-worth reflected and illuminated through this piece of art. I see a new generation seeking representation to remind them that marginalized people are valued.

There's that feeling.

Representation matters, as our very existence is seen as an assault on the sovereignty of some in our society. As laws pass that say that we can't marry, or that your body is not your own, or that they need to go back to "their" country, the very act of standing up and being seen is a revelation.

When we are given the power to represent ourselves and present our stories in our way, we remind the world that we deserve to be here. We remind our country that a plurality of voices and a multiplicity of perspectives is the bedrock of democracy. We remind the next generation that—in spite of what the hate permeating our government may tell them—they are seen and they are loved.

Theater, art, acting, performance—these are spaces of radical empathy. We embody other people; we tell their stories in order to better understand them. We make ourselves, and in turn our audiences, step into shoes that are not their own in order to promote a world where we are all valued. If those shoes are all the same and the players never change, we find ourselves shunning empathy, progress and understanding under the guise of entertainment.

The most entertaining stories, the ones we carry with us the longest, are the ones that challenge us. They are the stories that fundamentally shift our perspectives.

If we can push our stages to reflect a more equitable society, if we can present a Browner, Queerer, more Femme, less homogeneously able-bodied world, maybe we can promote a future where we are all accepted, where we are all seen, where we are all valued. A world where we say to that little girl, "You are smart. You are beautiful. You are everything."

And her only response? "I know."

Bear Bellinger has been an actor in Chicago since 2008, and has written about race and art for Vox and Medium.

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